Thursday, March 17, 2011

Italy at 150

There is an essential incongruency seeing prelates celebrating an anti-clerical movement led mainly by Masons. Or of proven republicans celebrating the proclamation of a new kingdom. Or of the left celebrating an elitist movement in which in 1861, only 1.8% of the population were enfranchised. But anniversaries are all about symbols and today’s politics and not very much about real history. In 1989, there were wonderful photographs of that well-known trio of revolutionary sans culottes, Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl celebrating the 200th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. And for the handful of French royalists or the people of the Vendée, 14 July is hardly an auspicious day; strictly speaking, for loyalists or slaves, 4 July was not a declaration of independence either. Both, though, are taken as symbols of the nation and national unity.
The difference between them and Italy is of course that in the last 200 plus years, both the US and France have been through enough to make them into single countries. They have their founding myths, half truths and full truths which all but a few diehards can live with and actually buy into.
As today’s anniversary makes clear, Italy is not like that. On 17 March 1861, the new Italian Parliament proclaimed Victor Emmanuel II

of Piedmont Sardinia as king of a newly united kingdom of Italy. It was the culmination of a movement which was far from all-embracing. It was mostly middle and upper middle class with the occasional participation of peasants who saw Garibaldi as some sort of messiah. Some were young romantics who really did believe in freedom and the nation. Many of them had fought for the Roman Republic back in ’49 for a constitution and freedom from foreign rule or influence.
As I write, sitting on the Janiculum, President Napolitano and other national dignitaries are half a mile away celebrating Garibaldi and his defence of the Janiculum and the whole city of Rome against French troops fighting to re-install Pope Pius IX as temporal ruler. Even this produces its contradictions; the Irish ambassador to the Holy See (whose residence round the corner was seriously damaged in the 1849 siege) recently had to politely decline invitations to some of the festivities pointing out that the events of 1848-9 were revolutions against the government to which he is accredited. The Pope today compliments Italy on its anniversary and compliments Roman Catholicism for being the glue which holds the country together; many of his predecessors worked hard and successfully to prevent Italian unification and from 1870 to 1929 the papacy did not recognise the new state.
On the other side, today centre-left politicians appear on television wearing a tricolour rosette; on Saturday there was demonstration with the left defending the constitution against Berlusconi’s justice reforms and many of them literally wrapped themselves in the flag.
There are other reasons beyond the initial contradictions, though, that the foundation of the Italian state is not celebrated like 4 or 14 July. The local identities were strong in the middle ages and are still strong today; they are made up of language, food and art and a very strong sense of belonging. Most of the pre-unification Italian states lasted more than 150 years and many of them demand respect not just for their art and food but their political institutions too.
Then there are the wars which in most countries unite the population either in conquest or defence. Italy has had none which genuinely had the support of most of the population. Indeed the first war that Italy fought was a civil war against the so-called brigands of the south and even today, many Sicilians talk about “the Piedmontese” rather than Italians – for them it was a northern conquest not unification. The Italian colonial wars were expensive in both blood and treasure and yielded little glory and and less income. The first world war was opposed by a majority of the population and cost thousands of lives and the very identity of the country; its result in both the government’s and public mind was “a mutilated victory”. Mussolini’s wars were no better and were strongly opposed by the anti-fascists. Perhaps if he had stopped with the conquest of Ethiopia, not only might he have survived but Italy might have been united around “King and Emperor”. Instead he went into Spain and then, worse, world war two, disasterous and the end not only for him and the kingdom of Italy itself but devastating for the country. The partisan war did indeed unite part of the country and became the elaborate founding myth of the Republic but even that is now considered “a civil war” and not only a war of liberation.
Wars did not unite Italy – but peace has, along with prosperity and social mobility. This and immigration mean that local identity is waning in favour of an Italian identity.
While there are separatist movements in other parts of Europe, paradoxically, the anti-unification rhetoric in Italy seems to underline the national identity. In the past it was the south that put on a show of non-Italian-ness. Sicily had its separatist movement, the heirs of the 1860s “brigands” on the mainland. One of them even wanted Sicily to become the 49th state of the US. Today it is the north with Umberto Bossi’s Northern League posturing rather than shooting like the post-war Sicilian or South Tyrol separatists. Their regional councillors in Lombardy ostentatiously went to the bar when the national anthem was played and their parliamentarians are not attending today’s joint session of Parliament… but their ministers are still in the government. The provincial government of South Tyrol (Alto Adige in Italian) declared they had nothing to celebrate as they were annexed by Italy in 1919 while Sardinian separatists also snubbed the celebrations – this is ironic as the Savoy family title of “king” first applied to Sardinia.
So today’s celebrations are anything but triumphalistic, quite rightly so but it is surprising quite how much interest and support there is for the idea of Italy. There is a surprise and relief that it has lasted 150 years. Despite the rain, thousands have turned out for today’s events and the tricolour is not just flying on public buildings. Most Italians spend their time criticising their country so a celebration once every 50 years or whenever Italy wins the World Cup is surely in order.
And a happy St. Patrick's day too…

For more history on the subject, see my piece, Italian Unification, 150 years on in this week’s issue of Wanted in Rome.
On 8 and 9 April The American University of Rome is hosting an international conference on “Italy at 150”. Scholars from Europe and North America will discuss the consequence of unification for art and music as well as politics and economics. Click on a detailed programme, or call +39 06 5833 0919 ext. 323.

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